Turkmenistan: When good neighbors become good friends
Ashgabat talks the talk on corruption, but evidence suggests this is all hot air. Details on this and more in this week's Akhal-Teke Bulletin.
Nobody can have been surprised to see Turkmenistan ranked 170th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Any nation scoring between 0 and 50 points on the index’s 100-point system is deemed to be “highly corrupt.” And Turkmenistan scored 19, which is actually a one-point drop on 2022.
This is more tacit confirmation, if any was needed, of the yawning gap between the Turkmen government’s public posturing and reality.
Turkmenistan does all the things it needs to do for international respectability.
It has been party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption since 2005. It professes to be implementing a five-year National Action Program to Combat Corruption that is poised to run its course in 2024. As part of that agenda, the government in 2017 ushered in new anti-corruption legislation that ostensibly installed more robust preventative measures, including incentives for whistle-blowers. In November, Turkmenistan became a member of the International Anti-Corruption Academy, an Austria-based institute with observer status at the UN General Assembly that provides training on strategies to fight graft.
But there are no immediately observable achievements from all this.
In fact, the country got another disappointing report card on February 2 from Fitch Ratings, which assessed Turkmenistan poorly on its commitment to rule of law and fighting corruption.
In the absence of a free civil society, media scene and political system, it falls to the nepotistic regime of President Serdar Berdymukhamedov – the son of former President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – to pretend to be inculcating a climate of intolerance towards corruption.
It was in deference to this required dramaturgy that President Berdymukhamedov on February 2 ordered the firing of Ashgabat prosecutor Ovezmammed Shykhmammedov for “improper performance of official duties and serious shortcomings in his work.” That came on the heels of the January 16 dismissal of General Prosecutor Serdar Myalikgulyev “for failure to properly fulfill his official duties.”
Amsterdam-based outlet Turkmen.news has since reported that Shykhmammedov is under arrest. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, meanwhile, has cited its sources as saying that Myalikgulyev too is facing criminal charges over shady dealings to do with the state-run network of subsidized grocery stores. Azatlyk’s hypothesis is that the men, who both got their respective jobs at the same time in July 2022, are being investigated over alleged embezzlement that has led to chronic shortages at stores that the country’s poorest rely upon to supplement their larders.
“There is growing tension in society due to the chronic shortage of subsidized food goods. They do not reach state stores in the required quantities, and what reaches the stores is stolen by petty bureaucrats, such as store managers,” said the broadcaster’s source, who relayed the claims on the arrests.
In another important tidbit, Azatlyk points out that it is whispered that Myalikgulyev may be a distant relative of ex-President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s late mother. If true, this would be important, as any degree of intimacy with the ruling family confers some degree of immunity.
Last month, Turkmen.news reported, citing unnamed sources, that the former head of state chemicals company Turkmenkhimiya, Nyyazly Nyyazlyev, had been sentenced to 15 years in prison on corruption charges. The website suggested, however, that Nyyazlyev might be in the running for an amnesty on account of his close ties to Hajymyrat Rejepov, a cousin of President Serdar Berdymukhamedov.
He got it much easier than even Turkmen.news initially imagined, though. The website offered a groveling apology on January 31 to say that it had learned that Nyyazlyev had in fact been released from the courtroom at the end of his trial. It promised to be more rigorous in double-checking its facts in future. The error was perhaps understandable since acquittals are not known to be much of a thing in Turkmenistan’s courts.
If things are a bit of a mess at home, there is a more benevolent narrative on the international front.
Turkmenistan burnished its good-neighbor credentials over the weekend when it dispatched 2,000 tons of liquefied gas by rail to Kyrgyzstan, which has been fighting to cope with the fallout of an accident at a thermal power plant in the capital, Bishkek. The delivery, which has been designated as humanitarian aid, was made at the behest of the Turkmen president.
Perhaps taking a leaf from his Turkish colleague’s book, Uzbekistan’s ambassador in Ashgabat, Akmaljon Kuchkarov, delivered a briefing to reporters on February 5 in which he spoke of the plans Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have on yoking their industrial potentials so as to localize the production of essential goods.
“The world is experiencing crisis phenomena, where we have become victims of broken supply chains. We have no alternative but to turn to our neighbors to produce things that we cannot obtain at reasonable prices from abroad. We have to do this domestically,” Kuchkarov said in remarks relayed by Ashgabat-based News Central Asia and Russia’s RIA-Novosti. “If we combine our capabilities and potential, this will have a great multiplier effect and will help improve the well-being of the Uzbek and the Turkmen peoples.”
Another party eyeing profit in evolving supply chains is Russian online retail company Wildberries. Company founder Tatyana Bakalchuk told RIA-Novosti in an interview published on February 5 that Wildberries is considering opening up shop in Turkmenistan, along with Tajikistan, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states. The company currently operates in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan.
One Russian lawmaker, State Duma deputy Vladimir Resin, suggested some business could go in the other direction too. With foreign companies vacating potentially lucrative niches in Russia, Turkmen entrepreneurs should be encouraged to take their place, Resin was quoted as saying by the Duma’s own TV channel.
This is all of a piece with Russia’s attentive strategy for Turkmenistan.
Turkmen state media reported on February 1 that a delegation from state-owned Russian Railways, or RZhD, had traveled to Turkmenbashi to perform an inspection of the city’s port and assess its capabilities. The Russians are apparently looking to use Turkmenbashi as a waypoint for the delivery of grain from the ports of Makhachkala and Astrakhan toward Afghanistan and Iran. Cargo deliveries to Turkmenbashi from those cities could begin as early as March if an assessment by the Russians deems the route to be viable. Just to make its presence more solid, RZhD is also reportedly poised to open a representative office in Turkmenbashi.
For those closely watching news on Caspian logistics, it will not have escaped them that this hasty positioning by Russia comes soon after a Central Asia-focused EU transportation forum that culminated with lavish pledges on developing the sea as an alternative transit corridor to Russia.
Turkmenistan is making it clear that it wants no option foreclosed, though. Speaking at the February 2 Cabinet meeting, Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov debriefed the president on efforts being taken to develop cooperation between Turkmenistan and the European Investment Bank, the European Union’s investment arm. President Berdymukhamedov sees this as an opportunity for moneybag foreigners to sink money into unspecified capital investments in Turkmenistan. If the parallel conversation between the EU and Kazakhstan is any guide, however, it is likely Europeans investors would be mulling something with more immediate prospect of return – namely, a stake in vital transportation infrastructure.
Turkmenbashi port, for example.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.